ComNavOps hates unsubstantiated truisms. They’re generally nothing but old wives tales. Unfortunately, a few of the popular ones have surfaced in our last post discussion.
- Older ships are too expensive to operate. The corollary is that it’s cheaper to buy a new ship than operate an old one.
- The (fill in the blank ship class – we’re talking about Ticos, in this case) class is nearing the end of its life and has been used up and can’t continue to serve.
Let’s look a bit closer at the “old ships are too expensive to operate” belief.
This is slightly true but not to any appreciable extent. Yes, an older ship may have more expensive spare parts but those kinds of cost differentials are non-existent on a relative basis. Yes, an older class may have an older technology that has been totally bypassed by something newer and hugely cheaper to operate but, realistically, how many times in history has that happened? The component pieces of equipment on the Ticos cost the same to operate as those on the latest Burkes.
What about maintenance? People make the claim that maintenance is much greater on an older ship than a newer one. Bilgewater! In a properly maintained fleet, the maintenance requirements of all ships are essentially the same. Maintaining a LM2500 turbine is the same regardless of the age of the ship/turbine. Yes, equipment may require an overhaul periodically but that applies to all ships, regardless of age, unless the ship is in the first months of its life. Even then, that’s not a guarantee of low maintenance – ask the LCS Milwaukee!
Now, there is one maintenance scenario that supports the claim of being more expensive on an older ship and that’s for the case of a ship that’s been badly neglected for many years and then the maintenance bill can be quite high. That, however, is not normal or should not be normal. In fact, that’s a case that calls for firing or courts martial of those in charge.
Manning is the one area that has a somewhat valid claim to lower operating costs. Automation has reduced crew size on newer ships, true, but that’s a false savings as we’ll find out when we engage in combat and realize we don’t have enough crew for extended stints at battle stations or for conducting damage control. Also, there’s nothing that prevents an older ship from being automated during an upgrade.
What about upgrades? Older ships need periodic upgrades which are expensive, right? Again, bilgewater! You do realize that the first thing a brand new ship fresh off of trials does is enter drydock for a maintenance and upgrade period? It’s a fact of ship life that ships undergo periodic upgrades but that begins in the ship’s first year of life and continues periodically throughout its life. The frequency and cost don’t change as the ship gets older. Yes, we sometimes opt to do a very extensive mid-life upgrade but it is not a requirement and it’s quite cheap compared to new construction. We’ve tracked some Burke/Tico upgrades and seen that they run around $30M-$60M. Heck, even the mid-life refueling and upgrade of a nuclear carrier is cheap at around $3B compared to the cost of a new carrier and that’s the ultimate worst case. A major, major Tico upgrade would be $50M-$100M. That’s nothing!
So, what are we left with? We’re left with an unsubstantiated claim, oft repeated, that older ships are more expensive to operate. Unless someone can provide some data to the contrary, this claim is untrue.
Now let’s look at the claim that older ships have been used up and have no more life in them. I think you know the summary judgment on this one – bilgewater! A 28-30 year old ship is not used up unless the Navy has criminally allowed the ship to deteriorate beyond repair. Even then, a ship can be repaired. People seem to think that there is some sort of magical process whereby a ship becomes less seaworthy when it reaches a certain age. Completely untrue. Let’s look at some examples.
served 50 years and, at the end of that time, was
still completely seaworthy and could have continued to serve for another 50 if
we so chose. Unless there are holes in
the hull (and even hull sheet metal can be replaced), every piece of equipment
can be replaced. Yes, the nuclear
reactor makes a carrier a special case due to nuclear fatigue but I’m
illustrating the seaworthiness of the hull.
Turbines, berthing, catapults, arresting gear, or anything else can be
Well, OK, you say but that only applies to large ships. Smaller ships wear out faster, right? Wrong. The LCUs are in the vicinity of 50 years old and still going strong. Perry’s are continuing to serve around the world and will do so for many years to come.
The point is that end of life is a purely arbitrary concept. We can replace anything. Consider the example of the B-52 which is still serving and expected to continue for many years to come.
Again, the cost of doing the upgrades necessary to keep a ship operating is very cheap compared to the cost of new construction.
Unconvinced? Let me give you a concrete example. Suppose we consider the case for a new Tico versus maintaining the ones we have via upgrades. A new Tico would cost around $2.5B (or more!). A major upgrade for a Tico would cost around $100M and let’s say it buys us 10 more years of service per ship. Those are all pretty reasonable numbers. So, at $2.5B, we can fund 25 Tico upgrades and gain 250 ship-years of service (25 ships x 10 years). Compare that to the single new Tico that we could buy for $2.5B which would give us 30 ship-years. That’s 30 ship-years for one new ship versus 250 ship-years for 25 upgrades. The choice seems clear.
If you’re going to cite a truism, back it up with data. Otherwise, it’s simply not valid. These two truisms are proffered by the Navy as a means to justify their obsession with new construction and, like so much the Navy spouts, are untrue.